17 February 2009

Bible interpretation dodge #1 — plastic text (NEXT! #4)

by Dan Phillips

Challenge: I think you can make the Bible mean anything you want.

Response: So, you're saying that the meaning of the Bible is objectively fixed and crystal-clear?

(Proverbs 21:22)

Dan Phillips's signature

58 comments:

DJP said...

It's like this:

1. I was away all day taking my boys to the snow. Then I find I'm called in to work an hour early. So, no time to polish up a longer post from Draft status.

2. Your assignment (in addition to whatever else you want to say) is to tease out the point wrapped in the pithiness.

Rick Frueh said...

Challenge: I think you can "change" (make) the Bible to mean anything you want.

Response: So you are saying that the Bible does mean something, it's just that people change it?

Citizen Grim said...

Yeah, I like Rick's revision. Here's my polishing:

Challenge: You can twist the Bible to mean anything you want.

Response: So you're saying there is an objective, untwisted original interpretation?

eastendjim said...

Paraphrase from part of a "Way of the Master Radio" witnessing exchange.

John Q. Public: Well, that's how YOU interpret the Bible.

Todd Friel: Ok. The Bible says, "...all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death." Interpret that verse for me.

John Q. Public changes subject.

Marie said...

Ok, let's see....if I'm understanding you correctly, the point you're making is that by playing fast and loose with hermeneutics and no regard for context, you can use the Bible to justify anything you want?

Which, of course, when done in Angry Atheist Sound-bites, makes it look really, really bad.

For example: God is genocidal (pointing to Numbers, Joshua).

Incest is ok (pointing to Abram/Sarai; Lot and his daughters-in-law; etc.)

If homosexuality is a sin, it is no more grievous than eating pork chops and mixed textiles (Leviticus 19).

On the other hand, when believing unbelievers want to mold Jesus to fit their agenda, He becomes the most tolerant liberal ever to walk the earth and the OT becomes largely metaphorical. For example, Matthew 7:1 becomes the whole sum and substance of the Gospel, while passages such as John 14:6 are swept under the rug or allegorized.

We can turn Jesus into a 1st-century women's rights activists by super-imposing a 20th century agenda onto the Gospels (you should have seen a made-for-TV movie Christian Bale played Jesus in a few years ago - it was painful to watch); or, we can choose to use the Aaronic priesthood as today's model for the church, as the RCC has done.

You can justify murder by pointing to isolated verses in the Pentetuech. Paradoxically, you can try to build a case against capital punishment by citing John 8:1-11.

Of course you can subjectively twist the Bible to mean anything/justify anything you want...it's the noetic effect of sin (our fallen propensity to read our own agenda into the text). Is this what you are getting at, or building a doctrine on one verse?

DJP said...

Marie, thank you for putting such effort into unravelling my terse response. And your points are all good ones.

But no, that isn't where I'm going with this "Next!"

Try (at the risk of piling terse on terse) seeing it as an application of the verse I cite (Proverbs 21:22).

Chris Roberts said...

This is, I think, pretty simple. Maybe. Unless I'm wrong.

You can make the Bible mean anything you want.

If so, anyone's opinion about the Bible should be equally valid.

My opinion about the Bible is that its meaning is objectively fixed and crystal clear. Since you've already acknowledged that my opinion is valid, you are left with a dilemma.

Rick Frueh said...

Dan - there is no one in recent memory who gets more out of Proverbs than you.In the light of Proverbs 21:22, I am guessing you are applying the "pull the carpet out from under them" principle?

DJP said...

Rick — absolutely right. Now my question is: how am I doing that?

Chris — that's a good point! But it isn't my point.

(c;

David said...

Got it! Excellent point!


Way to tear down the house.

Rick Frueh said...

I would guess you are using their own assumption against them by taking their logic to a point they never intended? In effect, you attack their own city and pull down the stronghold that in which they were trusting?

Carpet - pull - fall.

Tim Bertolet said...

DJP,
You're pulling the carpet out from under them by apply their own method to their own words... and of course they'll object that you've misunderstood them. If they object though, they are saying their words have an original meaning in an original context. You basic show their own arguments to be self-defeating.

I think I remember D.A. Carson saying something in the "Gagging of God" about using this method--I can't remember exactly but I think it was a story about someone standing up and disagreeing with him and advocating a 'reader response' hermeneutic so he basically said "I'm so glad you agree with me"... then Carson pointed out how angry the post-modern literary figures get when they are misunderstood. I could be wrong but I think Vanhoozer might make similar points in "Is There Meaning in this Text?"

donsands said...

This is a great post. I'm dealing with a gentleman about this. I'm looking forward for some wisdom from above.

Here's what this unbeliever says, which is in line with your dodge #1:

"Donsands, we have been all this before. You said what you said, namely that you "think" something means something. Axiomatically, somebody else may (and probably will) think differently. It is a matter personal interpretation and the bible means different things to different people. It can mean anything you want it to. Why can't you simply accept that fact?"

DJP said...

Tim Bertolet is the first to put the arrow smack in the center of the ten-ring.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

I don't remember where I read it, but I do remember a Christian apologist writing that Christians need to be rather judicious in employing reductio ad absurdum arguments.

Some Christians apparently do this all too frequently and have done so in a rather dismissive manner which according to this aforementioned Christian writer is not in accordance with being gentle in giving an answer. I think what he was saying was that ridiculing the other person's argument (which makes the other person feel ridiculed) by showing that it was inherently contradictory or self-refuting is not always a wise strategy to pursue. Or that he observed that such Christians who do employ reductio ad absurdum arguments at the drop of a hat often show themselves to be too smug to the unbeliever, and although "winning" the argument, they may have further turned the unbeliever away from Christ.

Rhology said...

This is also my favorite type of response. I usually say "I interpret your statement to mean that you agree 100% with what I've been saying, that you have repented of your sin and trusted Christ as Savior and want to come to church with me this weekend. Did I get it right?"

DJP said...

Exactly. Another very good one, Rhology.

Because, you see, it's unfailing: everyone who is a relativist when it comes to Biblical interpretation, is a rock-ribbed absolutist when it comes to his own words. His assertion that Scripture is multivocal is, itself, univocal.

I don't believe in showing endless patience and respect for shallow, clichéd dodges. Proverbs 26:5 can be a good tonic for such situations.

Stefan said...

Not to get all pomo and syncretistic, but this is kind of like a Zen koan....

Stefan said...

...Because both this and a Zen koan are intended to challenge the hearer to think by attempting to resolve a contradiction.

The difference, however, between this and a Zen koan is that in the latter case, such a resolution is impossible. The saying is ultimately meaningless by design, and because it is the artifact of a false religion.

This, on the other hand, is intended to drive the inquisitor towards the apprehension of a truth.

Johnny Dialectic said...

What is the sound of one Dan clapping?

tshirtninja said...

I find it funny how a lot of relativists will say statements like that. It's like people have this want for relativism but this opposite pull towards absolutism because they have to function in a logical universe.

DJP said...

Absolutely right. NOBODY consistently lives like a relativist.

Frank Turk said...

I will be pondering this today as I think I have missed Dan's point and meaning completely.

Tax Collector said...

Wasn't Ravi Zacharias the one who said:

"words matter" ?

DJP,
"Absolutely right. NOBODY consistently lives like a relativist."

I would think that for someone to be consistent with anything would mean they would have to deem it as either 'right' or 'necessary'; which both fly in the face of relativism.
Good point.

It must be very stressful being a relativist, very scary too.

Jugulum said...

I like to respond this way:

Challenge: I think you can make the Bible mean anything you want.
Response: What did you say about my mother?

Yours is probably more effective, but mine is funnier.

DJP said...

Granted.

Everyday Mommy said...

I confess Dan...I'm not following you on this series. I know you're after something, but I don't have a clue as to what it is.

Solameanie said...

Stefan,

Since you brought up Zen koans, I have to let you in on something. The one about the sound of one hand clapping is bogus. I possess the rare ability to clap with one hand. I've often yearned for a Zen-follower to try and nail me with that one just for the privilege of seeing the stunned look on his face.

Mike Riccardi said...

"There is no absolute truth," is itself an absolute statement.

DJP said...

Absolutely.

donsands said...

"If they object though, they are saying their words have an original meaning in an original context."

The argument I get is that if someone says, "I think" this means such and that, then another person will come along and say "I think", it means such and this. So the conclusion, for the atheist, is that the Scripture means whatever it may mean to what one thinks it means.

So how do you nail down the meaning?

For instance,the Lord said, "Not a sparrow can fall to the ground, except for the Father's will."

I take this literally, and that the Father is sovereign over every sparrow, and especially us, His elect.
Another person takes it as an hyerbole.

If that makes any sense.

Mike Riccardi said...

The argument I get is that if someone says, "I think" this means such and that, then another person will come along and say "I think", it means such and this. So the conclusion, for the atheist, is that the Scripture means whatever it may mean to what one thinks it means.

This may be off topic, but I think the truth of Don's statement only illustrates the importance of having a spine in these days ruled by jellyfish.

Let's get on our face before God, get deep into His Word, know the settledness of it (Ps 119:89), and proclaim what it says. Let's not succumb to the temptation of cowardice disguised as false humility and preface everything with, "Well, I think," or "It seems to me," or "In my opinion." For the sake of a dying world, keep your opinion. Preach the Word of God.

Julie said...

The objector assumes that his words are crystal clear, and have meaning that is understandable by his hearer.

But the Bible can't possibly.

DJP said...

Now comes Julie, loosing an arrow that splits Tim Bertolet's right down the middle.

Stefan said...

Frank and Everyday Mommy:

I didn't get this one either, until Tim Bertolet explained it.

DJP said...

As to the series, the first post explains everything.

donsands said...

"The objector assumes that his words are crystal clear, and have meaning that is understandable by his hearer.

But the Bible can't possibly."

That speaks loud and clear.

It's been a good post and comments.

I agree Mike, " Let's not succumb to the temptation of cowardice disguised as false humility"

Been there and done that. But by God's grace and Spirit, I will be able to preach the Word, and even be wiling to be mocked, demeaned, and perhaps even taken to court, and thrown in the slammer, if things keep going the way they're going.

Stefan said...

I've been reading a book on underground house churches and persecution of Protestant believers in World War II Rumania recently, and was reading it on the way to our weekly small Bible group meeting.

As I was ringing the doorbell to be buzzed in (looking around surreptitiously because the book had spooked me so much), I was thinking that one day, this might be the only way we could gather together as beleievers.

Tim Bertolet said...

It may look like humility but it is indeed false humility. In actuality, there is more than a bit of pride going on in the original speaker.

The objector considers the written word as malleable to the reader particularly when it was written in ancient times but obviously not the spoken word to the listener. As the contemporary speaker he has the power to govern his words to safeguard meaning, but does not afford the same possibility to the ancient writer. He will 'deconstruct' the words of others but raise a commotion when someone does it to him.

The pride is in one unwilling to do the hard work of reading what something actually wrote but expecting others to do the 'hard work' of listening to what he actually said.

Jugulum said...

Stefan,
"Frank and Everyday Mommy:

I didn't get this one either, until Tim Bertolet explained it.
"

I got this one immediately--but only because it's been pointed out to me before.

I've listened to a lot of D.A. Carson audio, in which he discusses post-modernism. He observed a trend: Person X writes a scholarly article that either argues that text is malleable, or uses a post-modern perspective on the malleable meaning of text. Person Y writes a critical review. Person X angrily responds, "He has clearly taken my ideas out of context, and had he paid attention to what I said here and here, he would have understood that..."

In other words, the post-modern scholar typically assumes that his words have an understandable meaning.

Mesa Mike said...

Try telling the traffic cop that you think you can make the municipal code mean anything you want.

Mark B. Hanson said...

I forget where I read it, but the funniest story along this line was the professor who told his class that texts only have the meaning that you bring to them, and the student who then replied, "I take your words to mean that my girlfriend is inferior because she is female. I guess I need to speak to the campus chapter of NOW about your behavior."

The professor began to backpedal rather quickly...

Chris said...

I'm late in the game here, but after reading through the thread, I'm reminded of the statement I actually have on a sticker right smack in the middle of my rear bumber that reads: "Is it TRUE there is no such thing as absolute truth?"

Am I on target here...or way off?

Jugulum said...

Chris,

Sure, that's a similar case of relativism run amok. Someone trying to be absolutely relative.

Chris said...

Mark:

As someone who spent (wasted) quite a bit of time absorbed in literary criticism, as a student of English Literature, we were introduced to this very concept of reader-centered relativism in a school of lit crit called "reader-response" criticism. The approach declares that texts ONLY mean what readers both bring to them and take from them; this is all fine and dandy when we are talking about slaughtering meaning in some novel or poem, but the sheer blasphemy of applying this hogwash to scripture is something we are sadly seeing today within evangelical Christianity...to a greater or lesser degree. I recall that one of the prominent theorists and proponents of this nonsense is a guy named Stanley Fish, who wrote an article with a catchy title called "Is There a Text in the Class?" The article suggested texts really don't exist, just the students who read them...and thats all that really matters, or so it suggested. Just nonsense.

Stefan said...

You guys are great. These are all gems.

I wonder if "reader response" is also valid when the text (oh, sorry, non-text) is a tenured professor's contract of employment, and the reader is the university? I mean, it's all about what the reader brings to it, right?

Strong Tower said...

There is no spoon. I love that line.

Sola, that sound is your hand hitting your forehead, the Doh! is just the echo.

The sound of DJP clapping with one hand depends on which hand he has the sword in. It is either a woosh or a whiff, depending on what was for lunch.


"The approach declares that texts ONLY mean what readers both bring to them and take from them..."

Except in this case, by assuming something changed from the text, there is a presumption of static realilty.

I tried once to convince my relativistic professor, a former president of NOW, that since the meaning of words is relative, that it would not matter what answers I gave on the final and that she should give me an A no matter what I wrote. Not to be undone before the class she responded, "I'll give you an F, you can interpret it anyway you like."

Tim Bushong said...

Great post Dan.

Actually I thought of Francis Schaeffer's "He is There and He is Not Silent".

If He's there but doesn't communicate to us clearly, then He might as well not be there.

Or something to that effect...

DJP said...

Yep, Tim.

Truth is, He's there and not silent, but some of us really want Him to be — on certain matters.

Benjamin Nitu said...

Yes, the answer might challenge a post-modern person.
However, what if the assumption behind the original question is not like it's here assumed: everything is relative; but rather that even though an objective truth exists, we can't know it.
So, what if the issue here is epistemology rather than ontology of truth?

Strong Tower said...

"So, what if the issue here is epistemology rather than ontology of truth?"

I don't think either is in question here, but an evidential claim. The bible is, and the words it contains are, and it is not being asked whether there is or how we know there is, but it is presumed that there is because it is conceded that what is has changed.

The accuser makes the concession that something was changed, and in doing so admits that to know that, he must believe that there is objective and clearly understandable truth.

Benjamin Nitu said...

"The accuser makes the concession that something was changed, and in doing so admits that to know that, he must believe that there is objective and clearly understandable truth."

Right ... this is the ontology of truth. He admits that objective and understandable truth exists.

However, he can argue that you and I can't know it. Therefore, it's kind of useless anyway.

DJP said...

So, you're saying that he knows with certainty that you can't know with certainty?

Strong Tower said...

"he can argue that you and I can't know it"

Actually, no he can't. He has presented the ironclade evidence in saying that it has been changed. He cannot present that if it is the case that we cannot know it.

Beside that, the proposition is not that we can know the truth of the statement, but whether or not the statement exists. Which as I said, he has presented it as knowable fact. From there we might at least have a ground of agreement and begin to examine the text as is without interpretation. At that point, letting the text say what it says is uber important. The question then is not whether we have an infalible knowledge of the truth claim of the statement, but whether or not we agree with it. The other questions as to whether or not we can arrive at absolute truth through rational inquiry, I think has been answered by others whose minds are not as weak as mine.

Stefan said...

Dan: Another conundrum that could be presented by skeptics (but I don't know how to put it pithily):

For believers, when asked for the source of the Bible's authority, we answer by citing passages that attest to Scripture's veracity (Heb 6:18), inviolability (John 10:35; cf. Jer 36), canonicity (1 Tim 5:18; 2 Peter 3:16), sufficiency (2 Tim 3:15; cf. Lk 24:27, 44), inspiration (2 Tim 3:16), completeness (Rev 22:18-19), etc.

But to a skeptic, all of this is circular logic. From the skeptic's point of view, we Christians affirm that the Bible is true, because it says it's true.

Of course, it's more sophisticated than this. The Bible's truth claims are authenticated by the witness of the Holy Spirit; Scripture does not contradict itself; and its message is consistent from Genesis to Revelation. And it cannot be the work of mere men, because it constantly and consistently subjects even the greatest men to the judgment of God, and they are found wanting—except for Jesus Christ, who was both fully God and fully man (which is kind of the point!).

But a useful post in this series could be a rejoinder to that claim of circular self-authentication.

Benjamin Nitu said...

So, you're saying that he knows with certainty that you can't know with certainty?
Good one, Dan! A skeptic person has to be skeptic also about his skepticism.

I guess my whole point was that different people have different assumptions in mind when they ask the same question.

"From there we might at least have a ground of agreement and begin to examine the text as is without interpretation"

Strong Tower, examining "without interpretation" is impossible.

Stefan, John Frame talks at length about this circular argument. But I agree with you, a different post will be a better start of discussion.

Strong Tower said...

"Strong Tower, examining "without interpretation" is impossible."

You mean like, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through me..."

needs to be interpreted? Does it say what is says, or what? At this point, I merely want to test their credibility, not their ability to exegete. I don't at this point expect discussion beyond the lexigraphical/grammatical structure. I suppose, if a sign on the drug store said gone fishing, one might assume that the druggist was in the alley fishing out of the dumpster a delivery that was mistakenly thrown in the garbage, or that he went to his favorite fishing hole to catch trout. But, I don't need that information to understand that he is gone fishing, nor to understand the store is closed.

I was not pointing to what the Bible might mean, but what does it mean, i.e., what does it say, in the most common parlance, at least in the mind of the accuser. DJP's proposition was: "you can make the Bible mean anything." We can interpret it to mean anything, true, but the proposition is founded upon the sense that it means something concrete to the accuser, or it could not be stated that it was changed.

I guess, a sufficient retort to the accusation would also be: "So show me what it does mean." Because what is not being said is, "Anyone can take what the Bible says and make it mean anything they want." What we want to know from the accuser is if they know what it says in the first place. The best way to expose that is to have them show their cards.

Raymond Nearhood II said...

I've been confronted with the same argument.

"Well, that's what it means to you. But, the Bible can mean anything."

My reaction has always been, "That's nonsense. It's like saying 'all rules are meant to be broken... except this one of course.'"

Great post, and great use of Proverbs.

Thanks.